DRM: Dogs and Cats

Jeff Carr picked up on my entry about Sony vs. Apple, and posted a comment that is too good to be missed by leaving it in comments. From Jeff’s blog entry on the subject of differences in DRM at Sony and Apple, to which the comment pointed: “The key to protecting rights and getting paid is as simple as the difference in how dogs and cats are handled at the veterinarian. When trying to control a dog, you tighten your hold. When trying to control a cat, you loosen your hold. DRM, properly executed, is a cat. “

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  • http://craphound.com Cory Doctorow

    Unsurprisingly, I disagree.

    Apple’s DRM is configured the way it is because it’s not supposed to stop you from copying. Instead, it’s supposed to accomplish two ends:

    1. Lure companies like Sony into licensing their copyrighted music to Apple, so that Sony’s customers will invest in Apple’s proprietary file-format by buying iTunes.

    2. Create a switching cost for Apple customers who want to buy a competitor’s products. If you buy $100 worth of iTunes, you can’t become a Rhapsody customer without abandoning that investment (or maintaining two separate vertical chains of store/metadata/player/portable).

    Sony can’t terminate its Apple iTunes licensing program because Apple won’t authorize the reverse-engineering of its player to iTunes competitors. The DRM in iTunes makes it unlawful to make an interoperable product without permission. This legal protection against competition is attracted by even the thinnest veneer of DRM. Apple’s DRM, consequently, is exactly thick enough to satisfy RIAA licensees and no one else.

    This allows Apple to have its cake and eat it too. Apple can create an 18-month upgrade-cycle (which is lucrative), but reduce the likelihood that their customers will switch to a competitor at 18-month intervals (many of us switch phone manufacturers at annual intervals, when our carriers give us our annual contract-re-up freebie; this benefits the phone industry as a whole but spreads the benefit around so no one company reaps 100 percent of the reward).

    Apple’s DRM is intended to make Sony and other Big Four labels into commodity back-end suppliers to a prorietary, locked-in front end that Apple has 100 percent control over.

    By contrast, Sony XCP and MediaMax were intended to maximize the revenue from “honest” users who were either too cowed or foolish or ignorant to acquire the music without DRM through P2P systems.

    Sony’s DRM ensures that Sony can sell you new versions of its music all over again for your PSP, your car stereo, your Walkman, your ringtones, etc, blocking you from making these transcoding steps for yourself.

    Neither of these systems are supposed to be “security” except in the sense that they secure a vertical lock-in for their vendors, which shuts out competition and reduces user-choice.

    Framing this debate in terms of “security” ignores that both iTunes and XCP act as counter-incentives to spend money on music. If you’re thinking of paying for an iTune, the presence of a DRM system can’t possible count in the positives column in your calculus of cost/benefit. IOW, if there were no DRM in iTunes, every present-day customer for iTunes would have exactly the same incentive to buy an iTune, but wouldn’t be locked into buying players from Apple for the rest of time.

  • http://tim.oreilly.com Tim O'Reilly

    Cory –

    I don’t disagree that Apple’s DRM is designed for lock-in. But I still think Jeff’s point holds. Apple created a kind of DRM that “feels” OK to many consumers, and isn’t the block to purchase that stronger DRM might be.

    From a consumer point of view, Apple’s DRM is far worse, ultimately, since strong DRM just makes people give up on the product, or route around it, while Apple’s is just comfortable enough for most people that they go along with it.

    Hence the effectiveness, to my mind, of Jeff’s image.

  • http://craphound.com Cory Doctorow

    Hmm — I guess so. The thing is that generally, when we hold cats and dogs, it’s to their benefit (e.g., to get them vaccinated); I suppose that we hold them on the way to the gas-chamber too though…

  • http://www.voidstar.com Julian Bond

    Was that a Godwin moment? :)

    DRM, properly executed, is a NoCat. There is no cat. As technical and business aware leaders we’ve really got to stop promoting the idea that there’s an acceptable level of DRM. There really isn’t. By praising Apple’s DRM, we’re promoting the idea that it’s ok to sell customers a high priced, low quality, DRM-riddled product that only works on one vendor’s platform. Is that what the customers were crying out for? The end result is that there isn’t or won’t be a single open music player that isn’t tied to either FairPlay (sic) or PlaysForSure (even more sic). Is that really a good thing?

  • http://www.dorealtime.com Jeff Carr

    For Cory – For better or for worse, the public likes their illusions, and even moreso when it’s served with a light touch. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

    For Julian – It’s way too early to predict an end result in this arena. I’m sure that a forward-looking company who wants to take on Apple’s success will find a way to implement DRM with an even lighter touch, opening the market to more vendors and gaining the support of the consumer in the process. It’s just a matter of time.

    And Tim, thanks for the compliment, and the link to my blog! You’re too kind.

  • http://tim.oreilly.com Tim O'Reilly

    Julian –

    I don’t know about Jeff, but I’m not praising Apple, just pointing out that what they do works well enough for many consumers that they swallow it, while what Sony was doing does not. That’s an observation that has to be taken seriously whichever side of the DRM debate you are on. Wanting things to be other than they are shows a noble idealism, but observing what is is often a better starting point if you want to make change.

    This was very much the approach we took in changing the meme from “free software” (a moral issue) to “open source” (a pragmatic one.) What I like about Cory’s post above is not the absolutism of his stand against DRM, but the arguments he uses to explain it, namely, that even when lightly handled, DRM is actually a tool of vendor lock-in, and thus not good for the user. That’s a pragmatic argument that is a natural follow-on to Jeff’s observation. Of course, it will encourage even more companies to try to follow Apple’s lead, but on the other hand, as users find the limits of that approach, they can also “just say no.”

    Unfortunately, many people don’t care that much. But raising awareness of the issues can help.

  • Paul Martin

    When speaking of Apple’s DRM model, you have to appreciate the time in which that model was released. This was the first successful attempt to implement an electronic alternative to the traditional business model of selling physical CDs. As such, it was a giant step in the right direction. Understandably, it includes substantial benefits to Apple.

    I think we have to accept that companies will continue to pursue vendor lock-in to generate a lasting revenue stream in an uncertain world. Tim has praised more creative attempts at vendor lockin by other means, such as adding value to a web site with collective intelligence (Amazon and others). If we want Apple (or someone else) to take a second giant step in the right direction, there has to be something in it for the company.

    It is worth pointing out that most of the iPods are being filled by ripping non-DRM CDs. Customers are already saying “no” to the extent that marketplace choices exist. There is room here for a win-win solution if someone has enough vision. That will involve delivering even more value to the customer, while rewarding the vendor that delivers it.

  • Simon Hibbs

    While I’m no fan of DRM, there may be a way to reach a compromise. By law, every DRM system must be available to rival equipment and software manufacturers for free. This would prevent vendor lock-in since Sony and others would then be free to bring out iTunes compatible players, while still allowing vedors to protect their wares. This would also allow free competition between DRM formats, inevitably leading to consumers prefering less restrictive DRM schemes.

    Not ideal, I know, but better than the current situation.

  • Kevin Wray

    Sony or any music company would be better off offering their catalog in all formats – whether it be AAC/WMA/OGG etc… They key component is to sell the rights to own/play/stream the song, and let the consumer decide which format, which device to deliver it to… Heck, even let consumers re-deliver the song if their device crashes.

    Rights can be beneficial for consumers, not always restrictive. Maybe the solution is for the cat to take a pill, rather than receive a painful shot.

  • http://technomancy.us Phil

    I prefer this version: “DRM, properly executed, is not.”